Art Behind the Scenes Curatorial Exhibitions

A quick trip to the Niedecken archives

George Mann Niedecken archival materials relating to designs for Milwaukee's Frederick Bogk House designed by Frank Lloyd Wright

This afternoon I had to run a quick errand to the Museum’s George Mann Niedecken archives (formerly Prairie Archives) and decided to take a camera, and you blog readers, along for the trip.

As we prepare for the upcoming Frank Lloyd Wright: Organic Architecture for the 21st Century exhibition, we are going through our own rich design holdings to see what we have that supplements the Wright drawings coming from the collection of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Wright is often remembered as a staunch individual, following his own personal artistic vision and refusing the idea that he was inspired by others. In reality, it is quite fun to connect his work to other architects, and he himself called architect Louis Sullivan his “Lieber Meister” (beloved master). Wright collaborated with Milwaukee interior architect George Mann Niedecken on the interiors of several projects, including Chicago’s famous Robie House, Milwaukee’s Frederick Bogk House interior, and houses for Meyer May, Edward Irving, and Avery Coonley.

Wall units containing archival storage boxes with George Mann Niedecken design material, Milwaukee Art Museum
A peek inside a flat file drawing showing matted George Mann Niedecken archival design material

The upcoming Wright exhibition will include drawings and stained glass windows from the Coonley house, a combination daybed/desk/lamp and table lamp from the Irving house commission, and an entire section of the show dedicated to Bogk House drawings and original rugs.  Of course, our Niedecken archive has a variety of designs and letters that complement the architectural drawings. Our challenge was only to decide how many and which ones to use.

Though we all agree that the archival materials carry a wealth of information, I’d argue that sometimes they don’t carry the same visual impact as the objects themselves. I wonder if having too much of this type of background material in an exhibition takes away from the experience of viewing the final product. For instance, see below Niedecken’s sketch for the Irving House Combination daybed/desk/lamp, an object that I wrote about in an early blog post. The drawing is informative and tidy, but I personally think it lacks the artistic punch of the object itself.

The drawing:

Snapshot of George Mann Niedecken, Perspective Drawing of a Combination Day Couch/Table/Light Standard for E.P. Irving, 1910. Milwaukee Art Museum, Gift of Mr. & Mrs. Robert L. Jacobson.

The object:

George Mann Niedecken, Combination Writing Desk, Daybed, and Lamp, 1910–1, Milwaukee Art Museum, Layton Art Collection, Purchase. Photo by Larry Sanders

We are faced with a fortunate problem: We have too much material that relates to the designs, and cannot include it all. We’ll be looking to offer a balance of colorful drawings with preliminary sketches, including several drawings for some projects, but in other instances letting the objects or drawings from Wright’s studio stand alone.

I am thrilled, however, to be able to exhibit one of my favorite type of materials we have in the Niedecken archive. Many of the interior design projects include huge plans for rug layout schemes, and often corresponding instructions for how the rugs should be woven. (These read like huge knitting pattern books, for those of you that knit.) The design for the tufted rug is abstracted into a grid of squares that indicate the pattern of color, and these are unfortunately done at such a huge scale (think: 6 foot by 4 foot!) on tracing paper that we are unable to put them on view. However, the designer’s colors are coded with a number and a corresponding card (like the one pictured below) shows the wool fabric samples to be used. We’ll have several of these rarities on view.

Snapshot of storage of George Mann Niedecken, Rug Color Chart for F.C. Bogk, ca. 1916-17. Milwaukee Art Museum, Gift of Mr. & Mrs. Robert L. Jacobson.

Because the wool on these cards has not been subject to light for the past 100 years, the colors are far truer than you can experience from period rugs. In our exhibition, we’ll have this wool color chart, the original rugs, and images for Wright and Niedecken’s Milwaukee Bogk House project.

The Wright exhibition opens at the Milwaukee Art Museum on February 12th, so come in to see these rare archival objects in person!

Mel Buchanan is the Assistant Curator of 20th-century Design. Mel’s curatorial responsibility includes interpreting, displaying, and building the Museum’s collection of craft, design, and decorative objects.

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